In the time that it takes to post a single-sentence tweet, the reputation – and even the market valuation – of a business can be shattered. This threat intensifies immensely if the tweet comes not from a disgruntled customer or Internet troll, but instead from someone with extensive worldwide reach. For this reason, organizations in the public eye must ramp up their crisis communications plans and be ready to jump into damage control mode at a moment’s notice.
While adapting contingencies for today’s realities, businesses should maintain the core approaches of their pre-2017 crisis communications methods. It’s more important than ever to have a clear chain of command with a single spokesperson, prepared statements, open lines of communication with all stakeholders, and ongoing solid relationships with the news media.
That’s right: I’m advocating honest, trusting relationships with the news media. Some very influential people are trying to brand the news media as the enemy of the American people, when, as stated eloquently by Charles Blow in The New York Times, “the exact opposite is true.” There is a movement afoot, quite possibly aided by our country’s actual enemies, to sow public distrust in the free press. Businesses should not fall into this trap. Reliable data – i.e., the truth – and mutually beneficial relationships are still critical components of business success.
PR professionals must support their clients in refusing to take the media-bashing bait. That might seem like a contradiction: the PR biz as a standard-bearer of the truth? In the public’s view, PR has long been lumped in with advertising as being less than honest about clients’ products, organizations, and causes. To be sure, “flacks” typically emphasize information that reflects positively on their clients. But as stated recently by the Public Relations Society of America: “Truth is the foundation of all effective communications…PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead, or alter facts.”
It may be challenging to take the high road on truthfulness in light of the current non-stop barrage of “alternative facts” that is confusing and discomfiting the public. Many people already are staunchly supporting the version of reality that they want to believe, and shielding themselves from messages that might convince them otherwise. We must resist the temptation of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” when it comes to honest communications.
So what should you do if you are attacked by a tweet? Your response – if you even choose to respond – should be truth-based but also address distinct and disparate audiences in ways that resonate with their beliefs and values. You are likely to need multiple statements and communications for different target audiences, a time-consuming but necessary tactic. You may have to “sell” yourself and your image: i.e., get people to like you before they will “buy” what you are saying. You can gain and maintain credibility by displaying courage, empathy, and honesty, while leveraging your positive relationships with the news media. While no outcome can be guaranteed, telling the truth is still a winning strategy.